Kaiser Files Philly Orch Report. Zero Surprises.

Back at the beginning of the 2015/16 season, the Philadelphia Orchestra was primed and ready for a major labor dispute but just when it seemed like things would get ugly, the Philadelphia Orchestra Association (POA) and the musicians agreed to a one-year agreement with the proviso that the orchestra would hire an independent consultant, former Kennedy Center CEO Michael Kaiser, to perform an institutional review (details). Shortly before the July 4th holiday, Kaiser concluded that work and issued his report.

Adaptistration People 133Given that the full report will not be released and both sides agreed to confidentiality agreement that prohibits public comment, don’t expect to see those details emerge through traditional channels.

Nonetheless, the 7/13/2016 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer published an article by Peter Dobrin which reviews some of the surface level items included in the report. In a nutshell, Kaiser highlights problems that could be ascribed to nearly every professional orchestra.

Here are some of the anti-climactic discoveries:

  1. The orchestra’s large donor pool is too small. According to Dobrin’s article, 78 percent of the POA’s large gift contributed income comes from just two percent of donors, which makes 19th century European aristocratic bloodlines look healthy by comparison.
  2. Improve communication.
    All of it. Kaiser reportedly found communication shortcomings in nearly every conceivable direction involving all stakeholder groups.
  3. The donor base is too small. Reportedly, the POA hasn’t done enough to engrain the orchestra into the fabric of local society and board membership isn’t as meaningful or fun as it could be.
  4. The endowment is too small. No surprises there.

Keep in mind, none of the report’s recommendations are binding and Dobrin’s article contains some clues indicating that it may be collecting dust sooner than later. For instance, the POA’s leadership won’t even be provided access to the full written report and discussion will be artificially limited.

The report raises serious questions about the orchestra’s current course, and yet does not fully represent all of Kaiser’s findings. At the orchestra’s annual meeting in the fall, orchestra chairman Richard B. Worley said that some ideas would be in the written report, while others would be communicated to the orchestra’s leadership more informally.

Nonetheless, there are some intriguing bits of sunshine that illuminate the real problems that plague many large budget nonprofit performing arts institutions; specifically, lack of board diversity due to concerns over sharing control.

Kaiser’s report recommends diversifying the orchestra board, bringing on donors at differing wealth levels, including more heavy hitters; people who better represent the city’s industry, demographics, and artistic and intellectual sectors; and people from well outside of the city.

One of the most common talking points from employers during labor disputes is the local donor community being tapped out. In most cases, that’s entirely accurate but only within the context of the existing executive leadership’s circle of influence.

But in order to attract a larger pool of large donor patrons from a full range of socio-economic circles, existing board leaders need to be ready and willing to share control.

Simply put, it’s the very worst byproduct from the golden rule. No, not the one that espouses treating others the way you wish to be treated, this one dictates that the one with the gold makes the rules.

For now, we’ll see how much impact, if any, this report has on bargaining for an agreement once the existing one-year settlement expires at the end of this season.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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5 thoughts on “Kaiser Files Philly Orch Report. Zero Surprises.

  1. How I would like to be a fly on the wall when “other [ideas] would be communicated to the orchestra’s leadership more informally.”

    I hope that there’s some discussion of the ED’s role in the decline of the orchestra and her outrageous total compensation package – perhaps she can leave the room for this.

  2. I also find myself wondering what those other board members and leadership figures (which were never clearly identified) feel about not receiving an unedited version of the report.

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